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Sarkozy heads to Bamako to meet with freed French hostage

Text by FRANCE 24 (with wires)

Latest update : 2010-02-25

French President Nicolas Sarkozy is expected in Mali late Wednesday to meet with French hostage Pierre Camatte, who was released in a prisoner exchange with al Qaeda's North African branch.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy is due to arrive in the Malian capital Bamako late Wednesday to meet with Pierre Camatte, a Frenchman released by al Qaeda in the Maghred on Tuesday thanks to a controversial prisoner swap deal with the terrorist group. The deal has sparked outrage in Algeria and Muritania.

Camatte was snatched from a hotel in Menaka in the Sahel region of northern Mali, more than 1,500 kilometres (1,000 miles) from the capital Bamako, during the night of November 25. The 61-year-old was a regular visitor to Mali, where he cultivated a plant used to treat malaria.

While Sarkozy is in the country he also plans to thank Malian president Amadou Toumani Touré for assisting with the French national’s liberation.

Camatte arrived earlier in the day on a specially chartered plane in Bamako. He was freed in exchange for four militant prisoners held in Bamako. The Frenchman was freed after the four prisoners arrived in northern Mali, where Camatte has spent three months in captivity.

Malian negotiators say they will now concentrate on freeing the three Spanish and two Italian hostages who Camatte was held with. They were all brought to the same desert region after being kidnapped in neighbouring Mauritania within days of each other in late November.

Sarkozy pledges support to Malian counterpart in fight against terrorism

French President Nicolas Sarkozy phoned his Malian counterpart to thank him on news of Camatte’s release and "assured him of France's backing to fight terrorism." A French source in Bamako suggested that Sarkozy may fetch Camatte himself.

Sarkozy, on a tour of Francophone Africa, was in Gabon Wednesday and is expected in Rwanda Thursday.

"It is possible that an important French personality" will come to Bamako to fetch the hostage, the source revealed on condition of anonymity.

Spain's Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos said Madrid would continue to "work for the liberation" of the three Spanish aid workers -- Roque Pascal, 50, Albert Vilalta, 35 and Alicia Gomez, 35.

Moratinos, speaking during a visit to Morocco, said he had congratulated his French counterpart Bernard Kouchner on news of Camatte's release.

France denied that it had paid a ransom for Camatte, who was kidnapped on November 26 from a hotel by Malians who passed him on to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the North African franchise of Osama Bin Laden's militant movement.

"The position of the French authorities has not changed -- we do not pay ransoms," French foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Valero told reporters.

Outrage in Algeria and Mauritania over prisoner swap

The release of the prisoners -- two Algerians, a Mauritanian and a Burkinabe -- outraged Algiers and Mauritania, which had planned to try them on terror charges and recalled their ambassadors from Mali in protest.

Valero did not directly address the complaints from Algeria and Mauritania, but said France remains "totally mobilised alongside the countries of the region who are all confronted by the terrorist threat."

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) had turned up the pressure on Paris and Bamako, threatening to kill Camatte if the four militants stayed in jail.

"After Pierre's release, we are going to concentrate on the other cases. We had to free Pierre first," one of the Malian negotiators told AFP early Wednesday.

The two Algerians, one Mauritanian and a Burkina Faso prisoner were freed on Sunday after being handed a sentence which corresponded to the time they had already spent in jail.

Date created : 2010-02-24

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